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Is High Impact Digital Learning Possible in Schools without Electricity?

By Jim Teicher on March 5, 2014
Elementary school students use the adapted interactive whiteboard to bring new light to learning.

Elementary school students use the adapted interactive whiteboard to bring new light to learning.

CyberSmart Africa’s vision is to provide an effective and highly scalable solution for digital learning in sub-Saharan Africa – including schools without electricity. Admittedly, this is a big vision. How is it possible?

I’m Jim Teicher, founder and director of CyberSmart Africa, a digital learning enterprise that has been working in Senegal since 2007. What started as my individual undertaking to provide school improvement at the grassroots level has blossomed into partnerships, including The Senegalese Ministry of Education and USAID. Working with these partners, and others, CyberSmart Africa implemented a learning solution that includes the world’s first portable, solar-powered interactive whiteboard, curriculum-aligned learning content, and ongoing teacher training.

CyberSmart’s innovative use of technology, training, and content enables us to reach more schools – especially those with poor infrastructure – than has been possible with the use of school computer rooms and laptop programs.

Watch the CyberSmart Africa 2014 overview video here.

Our Solution: Whole-Class Learning

Our approach is for the classroom teacher to facilitate technology-integrated lessons that extend what is already taking place in the classroom – and to use appropriately localized digital content as a catalyst to actively engage students in meaningful learning.

We observed that while school computer rooms often sit idle, the interactive whiteboard moves between classrooms, impacting hundreds of students in a single class-day. Our work is based on a “bottom-up” approach where teachers adapt and often improve the solutions we have put into place. For example, teachers have empowered students to take charge of moving the interactive whiteboard between rooms, as well as shutting it down and setting it up.

Equipment – Keep It Simple

Our approach to school technology integration disrupts the traditional model that utilizes computer rooms and laptops—a model that typically requires a dedicated classroom with desks and chairs. In contrast, we have chosen an approach that simplifies both the equipment and logistics necessary to deliver 21st century learning. We also enable off-grid operation through the use of low power/solar-powered equipment. This allows us to reach more schools – especially those with poor infrastructure – than has not been possible with most other ICT approaches.

We enabled touch-screen interactivity through the use of Smoothboard software coupled with an infrared camera (the Ninteodo Wii remote). The user simply clicks on the projected display with an infrared light pen, and the Smoothboard software allows the teachers and students to manipulate the computer desktop using the infrared pen just like a mouse. Our technology integration has evolved over time; but the concept is the same. We minimize the equipment components necessary to impact the largest number of students.

Since the vast majority of schools in sub-Saharan Africa lack electricity, we pay close attention to power consumption. We have recently been working with a low-power interactive LED projector paired up with a small lithium polymer solar-charged battery – both sourced from a partner in China. As of 2014, we will also be using Android tablets with integrated mobile broadband in order to more efficiently deliver online teacher training as we scale.

Plug-and-Play Learning Content

When used effectively, the interactive projected display becomes a window to the world of information and can now conduct virtual science experiments, watch videos of volcanoes exploding, and access maps of the world.

What happens when the teachers are either too busy or lack skills in digital literacy? School administrators can use software that have pre-made lessons, some of which are online. Our partner Editions Nathan—a supplier of textbooks to Senegal for many decades—now enables teachers to access professionally developed lessons that are completely integrated with textbook content.

Teacher Training – The Most Important Thing We Do

Teacher training is a critical factor impacting student achievement, according to many sources such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UNESCO, and The World Bank.

Our focus has been to provide ongoing professional development to support teachers. Instead of lecturing to students, teachers are encouraged to facilitate classroom discussion – integrating digital resources to enrich the conversation.

CyberSmart Africa’s teacher training starts off with traditional face-to-face seminars. We also plan to implement collaborative online learning that will enable our ability to scale to meet the demand for ongoing teacher training through the use of Android tablets with integrated mobile broadband. We are also evaluating new browsing technologies and other tools that will both conserve bandwidth and lower data costs.

Achieving Scale and Effectiveness – “Tech-lite and Training-heavy”

For 2014, our “tech-lite, training-heavy” strategy will propel us to achieve scale and effectiveness. We will achieve scale by lowering both the equipment and logistics-related costs traditionally associated with the replication of school ICT programs and by embracing broadband connectivity. This will enable us to provide the CyberSmart Learning Solution at a reasonable annual cost per school.

Our long-term goal is that an emphasis on teacher training will result in more engaged students who are better prepared for work and life in a globalized world. We do not intend to measure effectiveness in terms of students’ ability to pass tests based on rote memorization. Instead, we aim to judge our success by how we impact students’ ability to think and solve the kinds of problems that will enable them succeed in life.

Written by Jim Teicher, Director of CyberSmart Africa

Filed Under: Education, Power, Technology
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Written by
Jim Teicher founded and directs CyberSmart Africa, a social enterprise that has innovated an interactive classroom learning system designed for massive scalability in Senegal and sub-Saharan Africa. CyberSmart Africa grew out of his experiences as CEO of CyberSmart Education, a digital learning company.
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